Denver Zoo May Never Know Why Worker Was Attacked

Zoo Finds No Faulty Locks In Jaguar's Cage

Denver Zoo officials said they may never know why one of their zookeepers who was killed by a Jaguar came in direct contact with the animal since she was the only one in the building at the time of the attack.

Ashlee Pfaff, 27, died from a broken neck and other injuries after a jaguar attacked her on Saturday, the coroner said. A zoo employee shot and killed the jaguar when he approached emergency workers trying to save Pfaff.

Denver Zoo officials said the jaguar attacked Pfaff when she opened a door from a service area into his enclosure while the cat was still in the enclosure. They said they did not know why she was in the enclosure with the jaguar because zoo policy forbids keepers and big cats from being in an enclosure together.

The jaguar had no history of unusual behavior in Denver, Denver Zoo spokeswoman Ana Bowie said.

The zoo and Denver police have launched investigations. The U.S. Agriculture Department, which inspects zoos at least annually, also planned to investigate, spokesman Darby Holladay said.

Zoo officials held a news conference Monday to discuss the investigation and said no faulty doors, gates or locks were found in the jaguar's cage.

They said the emergency response team responded in minutes with weapons drawn and followed proper procedures in their efforts to save Pfaff. They say they were four weapons present at the scene.

"We're all grieving right now," Bowie said.

She added that Pfaff was passionate about her job with the animals. Pfaff came to the Denver Zoo 15 months ago after working at Denver's Downtown Aquarium. Zoo officials said Pfaff was an excellent worker and a great employee.

Pfaff had undergone regular safety training for the jaguar exhibit, shadowed veteran keepers and attended mandatory safety meetings, officials said.

"She was an experienced animal keeper," Bowie said. "This wasn't like it was her first job working with cats."

Zoo officials said zookeepers practice animal escape drills at least four times a year, emphasizing "Code Red" species, or animals that are capable of lethal force against humans.

Zoo officials said staffing was not an issue with the incident, and they have not reduced or removed any staff or safety procedures. They said they have actually added zookeepers in recent months.

Some former zoo employees said this was an accident waiting to happen. Dave Nickolaus worked as a Denver zookeeper for eleven years, before quitting, he said because the zoo put keepers in danger. "There was so much stress on the job to meet their expectations, and they weren't really giving adequate training. They were kind of getting us in and out of there, " said Nickolaus.

He said there were several escapes at the zoo in one year, including a polar bear and a gorilla. While he says zookeepers warned managers, their concerns weren't heeded.

"It has been brought to their attention a number of times that especially with cats, carnivores and bigger animals, there should always be two persons involved in transferring so that you're increasing your safety and awareness. But the zoo, they just didn't want to listen to any zookeepers," he said.

He also says in the feline building, it was sometimes difficult to see where an animal was because of the landscaping.

At Colorado's second largest zoo, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs, there is limited contact between zookeepers and animals. But all interaction is calculated and deliberate. There is never contact between zookeepers and felines according to Cheyenne Mountain zoo spokesman, Sean Anglum.

"We do not work in fear of these animals, we work in respect of these animals. They are wild animals. They're hard-wired to still be wild. Even with years in a captive situation like in our exhibits," said Anglum.

In Cheyenne Mountain's 81-year history, the zoo has never had a major incident between an animal and a human.

A family member said Pfaff's parents were traveling to Denver from their home in New Mexico.

They issued this statement Monday night:

    "We, the family of Ashlee Pfaff, are mourning her sudden and tragic death. Ashlee was a beautiful person, and was loved by many. We want to express our gratitude to those members of the public, Ashlee's coworkers at the Denver Zoo, and the Denver Police Department for their kind expressions of sympathy and condolences and their help in this matter.

    The family, obviously, wants to know what happened, how it happened, and why it happened. The family is confident at this time that the investigations by the police department and the zoo into those matters will answer those questions."

Services are planned for Tuesday, Feb. 27 at 7 p.m. at the Highlands Lutheran Church in Denver and for Saturday, March 3 at 10 a.m. at the Shepherd of the Valley Presbyterian Church in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Jaguar Had Twin Brother Named Osama

The Bolivian-born jaguar named Jorge was well-behaved as a young cat, but he had a twin brother who was so mean that his handlers named him Osama, a Bolivian zoo official said Monday.

Jorge -- Spanish for George -- had been named after President George W. Bush, said Dr. Margot Ugarteche, a veterinarian at the Santa Cruz Municipal Zoo of South American Fauna in Bolivia, which sent Jorge to the Denver Zoo.

"Osama was always the more dominant of the two," Ugarteche said. "He was always rough with George. That was the relationship we saw between them."

"Jorge wasn't bad, really," she said. "I don't know what could have happened. Perhaps because he was so well-behaved, the trainer (in Denver) thought she could trust him. But you never know with wild animals. Anything can happen at any moment."

The Denver Zoo has said Jorge was about 6 years old, but Ugarteche said the brothers were born in 1996. Tiffany Barnhart, a spokeswoman for the Denver Zoo, said officials there had only estimated Jorge's age because his birthdate had not been documented.

Jorge and Osama were captured by a family in the countryside of the tropical lowland state of Santa Cruz, in eastern Boliva, and were keeping them as pets until a local conservation group brought them to the zoo when they were 6 months old, Ugarteche said.

The pair did not have names until two or thee years ago, she said.

"We named him Jorge, like President George, the president of the United States, and the other one Osama, because he was the bad one of the two," she said.

The Denver Zoo obtained Jorge in March 2005. Ugarteche said the Santa Cruz zoo received various supplies in exchange, including computers and lab equipment.

"Jorge wasn't very big, but he's the one that qualified (to be shipped to Denver), because his attitude made him seem the better animal" for the trip, Ugarteche said.

She said Osama remains at the Santa Cruz zoo. She said news of Pfaff's death had saddened the staff there.

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